Saturday, July 09, 2011

Fiction Writing Lesson #1 : Joys of discomfort.

Yesterday marks my first fiction writing lesson under Felix Cheong, who conducts a brilliant course on fiction writing with NUS extension. While I'm not a new as a student of Felix, having attended an earlier session on feature writing, this first lesson was a particularly useful one, because I found it a little uncomfortable.

For years, I have stayed within comfortable boundaries and leveraged my classes based on my strengths. Classes in finance and IT played on my traditional strengths of Analysis, Input and Intellection. For the first time in my life in a class, I had no strength or talent to draw from. All I have is the idea that with enough deliberate practice, I can take on fiction writing just like folks like George R R Martin and J K Rowling.

It felt funny being below average in class. Almost like taking Mandarin classes all over again.

I'm just going to highlight some of the high points of this class. I think many exercises cannot be done buy reading a book on fiction writing. You've got to sign up with Felix to experience it yourself.

a) Creatively generating multiple uses of an everyday object.

Felix took a water bottle and made the class think up alternative uses for it. I said that it can become a weapon for self-defense, another student said that it can function as a book-end. After a few rounds, conventional ideas started to run out and we began brainstorm some really zany ideas for the water bottle. Most of my ideas are X-rated in nature so I had to suppress sharing with the class how the bottle can be used for colonic irrigation or acting as a temporary storage on the way to the sperm bank.

b) Predicting someone's personality by looking at their belongings.

In the second exercise, we were made to read someone's personality by looking at four of their items. I had an unfair advantage for this exercise because I employed the OCEAN personality framework to create a fairly accurate profile of someone. The dude showed me an Economist magazine (turned to the pages on ETFs) and a bible, so using the framework I painted an agreeable, introverted and very conscientious personality profile of my target. One student wanted to offer me a job after my display, but it's really the framework in use that should be credited for it.

c) Generating a story by listening to a song.

This is the highlight of the evening. We listened to two songs and we then were made to come out with a story-line idea after the song ends. This exercise was way over my head. The songs were very alternative and the best i could do is visualize a scene which was spontaneously being generated in my head. I was unable to construct a setup, conflict and conclusion by listening to one song. But the amazing thing is, the rest of the class did! One lady who is in advertising came out with so much concrete detail it includes a twist in the plot of each tale, the specific locations where action is taking place and the the countries the characters come from. How so much information could be squeezed out of a song with lyrics that are barely audible baffles me.

To close this article, I think a fiction writing class can benefit technology professionals or suits. Felix taught me that people tended to frame their experiences in two ways. A Paradigmatic approach normally used by engineers in an attempt to bring order out of chaos is my bread and butter in my daily work. But the other approach is the Narrative approach which I am now trying to master. Crafting a story, enriching it with metaphors and symbols, is a rare skill in the Tech world.

We should heed the useful lessons of the liberal arts to advance our technical careers.

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